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Late tonight Muhammad Ali--once a god, now forgotten--may fight Trevor Berbick, a tough young heavyweight who just a year ago went the distance with champion Larry Holmes. I say may fight, because there is some question where the money for the fight is coming from, and whether it will arrive in the Bahamas in time for the opening bell. May fight, because there is always the chance that Ali, all 39 years and 237 pounds of him, will look in the mirror one last time and decide that his encounter with Larry Holmes last year was punishment enough.
A few years ago Ali was God. I remember going to Madison Square in late 1975 to see the third Ali-Frazier fight, where all the good people wanted Ali to win and all the bad people rooted for Frazier. It was that simple. There was more noise in that building than I had ever heard before, or have ever heard since. Twenty thousand sang the chant in the Garden that night--"Ali, Ali, Ali"--and they were joined by at least 20 million more around the world.
Ali's fans were innumerable then, matched only, perhaps, by his endless repertory of skills--his job, his right lead, his defense, his will power, his heart. That fight against Frazier was a ritual, with its strong, confident start, its painful and disillusioning middle, and its powerful, miraculous end. Ali used himself up that night. After the battle he said, "That was the closest thing to dying that I know of."
Ali is alone now. His entourage--which once totalled nearly 50 people--has vanished. His followers read the headlines on the bottom of the sports page, but don't want to--or can't--read the whole story. Ali's skills number fewer than his fans. The only thing that remains with him is his incredible desire, his huge heart. His hands are slow, his body soft, his legs often confused in their movements. He trains by running three-quarters of a mile a day. He trains by standing in a make-shift ring, ignoring his sparring partner, and doing magic tricks for an audience of 50.
Ali has been telling reporters all week that he'll beat Trevor Berbick, using mind over matter. He's even twisted that saying around into a cute little poem: "If you don't mind, it don't matter. If you don't mind, it don't matter," he always says it twice.
If Ali steps into the ring tonight he'll get a rude awakening. It is not enough for a man to simply believe he can win; he has to have some of the tools necessary to defeat his oppenent, and Ali has nothing. He learned that last year against Holmes, and he'll learn it again tonight.
Ali used to make the point that he would be the first Black athlete to become financially independent, and that he would never make a spectacle of himself the way Joe Louis did in the 1950s. Somewhere along the line he forgot that promise, and tonight the gods will make their brother pay.
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